As a child, I frequently heard a specific refrain when there was food on my plate that I didn’t want to eat.
“Eat X food. Don’t you want to grow up to be big and strong?”
I was always baffled by that sentiment. Did I want to grow up to be big and strong? That seemed silly to me. I just wanted to be normal. Whatever that meant.
To my mom, growing up big and strong had a very physical skew to its meaning. Throughout most of middle and high school, I was a long distance runner. I didn’t crack 150 pounds until shortly before graduation, and only then because I had chosen not to do track my senior year. Every time I saw my mom, she complained that I looked emaciated, saying that I needed to gain weight if I wanted to stay healthy. The last time I saw my mom in person was around four years ago. At the time, I was near the largest I’ve ever been, coming in at around 240-250 pounds. My mom’s response? I only needed to put on a few more pounds to look “normal”1The irony to this is that my mom is five foot tall and weighs somewhere in the neighborhood of 90 pounds. I wasn’t terribly far from being three times her weight..
To my first stepmom, growing up big and strong meant learning how to be physical, both in life and sports. Choosing cross country over football wasn’t just a sign of weakness, it was damn near treasonous. If my stepbrothers were bullying me, it was my job to punch them back. No one was going to help me, nor were they going to care that said stepbrothers were ten and thirteen years older than me, respectively. Drink up the milk, young Tim. It’ll help you in a fight.
But why did I need to be big and strong? Why did it matter? Put simply, there’s evil in the world. If you can’t stand up for what you believe in — and what you believe in is what is right — why bother living?
Over the past few years, I’ve come to the conclusion that understanding and standing up for what you believe in is critically important. With that said, if you cannot also learn to listen to, communicate with, and attempt to understand those who have different points of view than you, you’re only doing a disservice to yourself.
I want to grow intellectually. I want to find a better understanding of the world around me. The world around me is extremely complex. It’s changing on a daily basis around each and every one of us. And if I’m not doing what I can to learn about the world at large — eating my knowledge vegetables to grow up big and strong, if you will — I’ll grow up to be intellectually weak. I won’t be able to adapt and to learn about those around me. I won’t be able to be empathetic towards someone who is different from me, especially in a world where empathy is sorely lacking.
As much as I enjoy social media, it’s a toxic thing. Twitter in particular seems to bring out the worst in people from all walks of life. If you’re not trying to be as radical, hateful, and obnoxious in your point of view as you can be, you’re not going to generate a following there. I’ve watched countless people I used to respect go down the road from being a normal human on Twitter to being a caricature of their former self. Only now they were filled with more rage than before. Some of it is the current American political climate, sure. But when you’re in an echo chamber where you only hear what you want to hear, anger gets amplified. People who don’t agree with you start to look less and less human. Everyone on the right becomes a fascist. Everyone on the left becomes a communist. And everyone in the middle, regardless of where on the continuum they fall, becomes little and weak because they’re perceived that they aren’t capable of taking a stand.
The truth resists that simplicity2As I channel my inner John Green with this statement., as it does with most simple explanations. There are very, very bad people in this world. Every group has its terrible people. Yes. All of them. Even the ones you, dear reader, belong to. And we cannot let those terrible people dictate our lives. But we also must remember that change does not occur overnight. Drinking one glass of milk doesn’t make you big and strong. Making one phone call to your congressman doesn’t solve all of the political problems. Seeing the actions of one side of the political spectrum and saying that your side could never do that because you’re not like that doesn’t fix anything.
Time, understanding, patience, and compassion fix things. Those attributes must be exercised towards everyone — ESPECIALLY those who are not like you. Otherwise, what’s there left to grow up for?